By Erik Boal
For The Signal
FRESNO — Following the most emotionally challenging 17-day period in Saugus High School history, the Centurions emerged from the CIF Division 1 girls state cross country final Saturday with another podium finish, but more importantly, a reason to smile and optimism for the future.
The most difficult eight-day schedule of racing ever placed in front of Saugus coach Rene Paragas and his athletes following a Nov. 14 campus shooting was punctuated by the most courageous effort from any Centurions’ team on the historic 5-kilometer course at Woodward Park.
Nothing about this season’s journey to the state championship was normal for Saugus, but the mental toughness, resolve and determination demonstrated by the Centurions were all too familiar to their fellow competitors and alumni who have watched one of the state’s most successful programs excel for more than a decade.
Saugus placed third with 136 points in its first appearance in the Division 1 final since back-to-back titles in 2006-07, returning to the state podium after having its 12-year streak of top-three finishes halted last season with a sixth-place result in the Division 2 championship.
“We’ve had a lot of big meets here, won a lot of titles and had a lot of kids run incredibly tough, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of any team as I am of what this group accomplished,” Paragas said. “This is one of the closest teams I’ve ever coached and they just kept supporting each other, kept lifting one another up, kept the group strong, no matter what kind of adversity we faced.
“We couldn’t even run (Dani Salcedo) today because she broke her foot in last week’s (CIF-Southern Section finals), but they never made any excuses and just went out there and ran together and had fun.”
Saugus was in fourth place following the first mile, but moved ahead of San Clemente at the 2.1-mile mark and maintained its advantage over fourth-place Canyon Crest Academy, led by individual champion Carlie Dorostkar, who elevated to the No. 4 all-time performer at Woodward Park by clocking 16 minutes, 45.4 seconds.
Buchanan captured its first Division 1 crown with a 67-71 victory over Great Oak, halting the seven-year title reign of the Wolfpack and denying them an opportunity to win a ninth title in the past decade and move into a tie for second all-time with Saugus, which captured nine girls championships from 2006-15.
Sophomore Isabella Duarte led the Centurions, placing 17th in 18:06.7, leading five Saugus athletes under 19 minutes.
“Honestly, it feels surreal,” Duarte said. “It’s very emotional for me right now because of everything that happened, and yet, all of the love and support from our nation, our state and our community, and just friends and family, is absolutely insanely amazing.”
Hailey Rutter, one of two seniors competing for the final time at Woodward Park for the Centurions, finished 19th in 18:08.7.
“I think it was just all of us not really stressing about getting on the podium that allowed us to run so well,” Rutter said. “We’re just trying to seize every moment that we can and spend more time with each other. We just keep reminding each other that every day is a blessing and that we have such a great opportunity to run for our school and represent them after what happened, so we were just trying to have fun.”
Valencia senior Hailey Kirsch was 34th in 18:27.6 in her first state appearance after running 18:18 in both 2016 and 2018 on the same Woodward Park course at the ASICS Clovis Invitational.
Saugus junior Julia Pearson, who hadn’t raced since Nov. 2 at the Foothill League finals, was 41st in 18:35.2. Senior Kaela Beretta finished 60th in 18:51.3 and junior Hannah Fredericks – third at the section final Nov. 23 to lead Saugus to a runner-up finish behind Great Oak – took 64th in 18:55.6 for the Centurions.
“Whether she was our first or our fifth, whether she won the race or finished where she did, we still would have placed third,” Paragas said. “Hannah has been amazing for us all year and she’s helped us through some really tough races. But the rest of the group really stepped up and responded and that was great to see. This group deserves a moment like this and it means a lot just to see them smile.”
Juniors Natasha Prociuk (19:19.6) and Jennifer Thompson (19:33.4) finished 98th and 111th for Saugus, which earned its 13th all-time state podium finish, trailing only San Francisco University (16) and Campolindo (14) in California girls cross country history.
“(Our goals) definitely helped us stay more positive through everything that’s been happening,” Duarte said. “I don’t even know how to think negatively anymore after all the love and support that we’ve had.
I feel like I can move forward and with everyone around us and who we’re surrounding ourselves with. We can do it, no matter what. This reminds us there’s always hope.”
Although it was the first third-place finish at the state final in program history, the significance of Saugus’ performance might have been the most powerful of any delivered during its memorable 14-year postseason run.
“We never wanted to forget what had happened,” Paragas said. “In honor of our school, our city, our town, our family and each other, that we’re going to continue on and make the world a better place and we’re going to work really hard and we want to show other teams and other people that terrible things can happen to you and you can still rise up and do great things.”